Linux distribution (often abbreviated as distro) is an operating
system made from a software collection, which is based upon the Linux
kernel and, often, a package management system.
Linux users usually
obtain their operating system by downloading one of the Linux
distributions, which are available for a wide variety of systems
ranging from embedded devices (for example, OpenWrt) and personal
computers (for example,
Linux Mint) to powerful supercomputers (for
example, Rocks Cluster Distribution).
Linux distribution comprises a
GNU tools and
libraries, additional software, documentation, a window system (the
most common being the X Window System), a window manager, and a
desktop environment. Most of the included software is free and
open-source software made available both as compiled binaries and in
source code form, allowing modifications to the original software.
Linux distributions optionally include some proprietary
software that may not be available in source code form, such as binary
blobs required for some device drivers. A
Linux distribution may
also be described as a particular assortment of application and
utility software (various
GNU tools and libraries, for example),
packaged together with the
Linux kernel in such a way that its
capabilities meet the needs of many users. The software is usually
adapted to the distribution and then packaged into software packages
by the distribution's maintainers. The software packages are available
online in so-called repositories, which are storage locations usually
distributed around the world. Beside glue components, such as
the distribution installers (for example,
Anaconda) or the package management systems, there are only very few
packages that are originally written from the ground up by the
maintainers of a
Almost six hundred
Linux distributions exist, with close to five
hundred out of those in active development. Because of the huge
availability of software, distributions have taken a wide variety of
forms, including those suitable for use on desktops, servers, laptops,
netbooks, mobile phones and tablets, as well as minimal
environments typically for use in embedded systems. There are
commercially backed distributions, such as Fedora (Red Hat), openSUSE
(SUSE) and Ubuntu (Canonical Ltd.), and entirely community-driven
distributions, such as Debian, Slackware, Gentoo and Arch Linux. Most
distributions come ready to use and pre-compiled for a specific
instruction set, while some distributions (such as Gentoo) are
distributed mostly in source code form and compiled locally during
2.1 Package management
3 Types and trends
4 Installation-free distributions (live CD/USB)
5.1 Widely used distributions
5.2 Lightweight distributions
5.3 Niche distributions
5.4 Android and non-
6 Interdistribution issues
7 Tools for choosing a distribution
8.1 Installation via an existing operating system
9 Proprietary software
10 OEM contracts
11 See also
13 External links
A timeline representing the development of various Linux
distributions, including Android, as of 2016
Linus Torvalds developed the
Linux kernel and distributed its first
version, 0.01, in 1991.
Linux was initially distributed as source code
only, and later as a pair of downloadable floppy disk images –
one bootable and containing the
Linux kernel itself, and the other
with a set of
GNU utilities and tools for setting up a file system.
Since the installation procedure was complicated, especially in the
face of growing amounts of available software, distributions sprang up
to simplify this.
Early distributions included the following:
H. J. Lu's "Boot-root", the aforementioned disk image pair with the
kernel and the absolute minimal tools to get started
MCC Interim Linux, which was made available to the public for download
in February 1992
Softlanding Linux System
Softlanding Linux System (SLS), released in 1992, was the most
comprehensive distribution for a short time, including the X Window
Yggdrasil Linux/GNU/X, a commercial distribution first released in
The two oldest and still active distribution projects started in 1993.
The SLS distribution was not well maintained, so in July 1993 a new
Slackware and based on SLS, was released by
Patrick Volkerding. Also dissatisfied with SLS,
Ian Murdock set to
create a free distribution by founding Debian, which had its first
release in December 1993.
Users were attracted to
Linux distributions as alternatives to the DOS
Microsoft Windows operating systems on IBM PC compatible
computers, Mac OS on the Apple Macintosh, and proprietary versions of
Unix. Most early adopters were familiar with
Unix from work or school.
Linux distributions for their low (if any) cost, and
availability of the source code for most or all of the software
Originally, the distributions were simply a convenience, offering a
free alternative to proprietary versions of
Unix but later they became
the usual choice even for
Linux experts.
Linux has become more popular in server and embedded devices
markets than in the desktop market. For example,
Linux is used on over
50% of web servers, whereas its desktop market share is about
Linux distribution is usually built around a package management
system, which puts together the
Linux kernel, free and open-source
software, and occasionally some proprietary software.
Linux distributions provide an installation system akin to that
provided with other modern operating systems. On the other hand, some
distributions, including Gentoo Linux, provide only the binaries of a
basic kernel, compilation tools, and an installer; the installer
compiles all the requested software for the specific architecture of
the user's computer, using these tools and the provided source code.
Package management system and
Linux package formats
Distributions are normally segmented into packages. Each package
contains a specific application or service. Examples of packages are a
library for handling the PNG image format, a collection of fonts or a
The package is typically provided as compiled code, with installation
and removal of packages handled by a package management system (PMS)
rather than a simple file archiver. Each package intended for such a
PMS contains meta-information such as a package description, version,
and "dependencies". The package management system can evaluate this
meta-information to allow package searches, to perform an automatic
upgrade to a newer version, to check that all dependencies of a
package are fulfilled, and/or to fulfill them automatically.
Linux distributions typically contain much more software than
proprietary operating systems, it is normal for local administrators
to also install software not included in the distribution. An example
would be a newer version of a software application than that supplied
with a distribution, or an alternative to that chosen by the
distribution (for example,
KDE Plasma Workspaces
KDE Plasma Workspaces rather than
vice versa for the user interface layer). If the additional software
is distributed in source-only form, this approach requires local
compilation. However, if additional software is locally added, the
"state" of the local system may fall out of synchronization with the
state of the package manager's database. If so, the local
administrator will be required to take additional measures to ensure
the entire system is kept up to date. The package manager may no
longer be able to do so automatically.
Most distributions install packages, including the kernel and other
core operating system components, in a predetermined configuration.
Few now require or even permit configuration adjustments at first
install time. This makes installation less daunting, particularly for
new users, but is not always acceptable. For specific requirements,
much software must be carefully configured to be useful, to work
correctly with other software, or to be secure, and local
administrators are often obliged to spend time reviewing and
reconfiguring assorted software.
Some distributions go to considerable lengths to specifically adjust
and customize most or all of the software included in the
distribution. Not all do so. Some distributions provide configuration
tools to assist in this process.
By replacing everything provided in a distribution, an administrator
may reach a "distribution-less" state: everything was retrieved,
compiled, configured, and installed locally. It is possible to build
such a system from scratch, avoiding a distribution altogether. One
needs a way to generate the first binaries until the system is
self-hosting. This can be done via compilation on another system
capable of building binaries for the intended target (possibly by
cross-compilation). For example, see
Linux From Scratch.
Types and trends
Linux adoption and Comparison of Linux
In broad terms,
Linux distributions may be:
Commercial or non-commercial
Designed for enterprise users, power users, or for home users
Supported on multiple types of hardware, or platform-specific, even to
the extent of certification by the platform vendor
Designed for servers, desktops, or embedded devices
General purpose or highly specialized toward specific machine
functionalities (e.g. firewalls, network routers, and computer
Targeted at specific user groups, for example through language
internationalization and localization, or through inclusion of many
music production or scientific computing packages
Built primarily for security, usability, portability, or
The diversity of
Linux distributions is due to technical,
organizational, and philosophical variation among vendors and users.
The permissive licensing of free software means that any user with
sufficient knowledge and interest can customize an existing
distribution or design one to suit his or her own needs.
Installation-free distributions (live CD/USB)
Live CD and Live USB
A "live" distribution is a
Linux distribution that can be booted from
removable storage media such as optical discs or USB flash drives,
instead of being installed on and booted from a hard disk drive. The
portability of installation-free distributions makes them advantageous
for applications such as demonstrations, borrowing someone else's
computer, rescue operations, or as installation media for a standard
When the operating system is booted from a read-only medium such as a
CD or DVD, any user data that needs to be retained between sessions
cannot be stored on the boot device but must be written to another
storage device, such as a
USB flash drive
USB flash drive or a hard disk drive.
Linux distributions provide a "live" form in addition to their
conventional form, which is a network-based or removable-media image
intended to be used only for installation; such distributions include
MEPIS and Fedora. Some distributions,
including Knoppix, Puppy Linux, Devil-Linux, SuperGamer, SliTaz
Linux and dyne:bolic, are designed primarily for live use.
Additionally, some minimal distributions can be run directly from as
little space as one floppy disk without the need to change the
contents of the system's hard disk drive.
DistroWatch lists many
Linux distributions, and displays
some of the ones that have the most web traffic on the site. The
Wikimedia Foundation released an analysis of the browser User Agents
of visitors to WMF websites until 2015, which includes details of the
most popular Operating System identifiers, including some Linux
distributions. Many of the popular distributions are listed below.
Widely used distributions
Debian, a non-commercial distribution and one of the earliest,
maintained by a volunteer developer community with a strong commitment
to free software principles and democratic project management
Knoppix, the first
Live CD distribution to run completely from
removable media without installation to a hard disk, derived from
Debian Edition (LMDE) uses
Debian packages directly (rather
Ubuntu, a desktop and server distribution derived from Debian,
maintained by British company Canonical Ltd.
KDE version of Ubuntu
Linux Mint, a distribution based on and compatible with Ubuntu.
Supports multiple desktop environments, among others
GNOME Shell fork
GNOME 2 fork MATE.
Trisquel, an Ubuntu-based distribution based on
composed entirely of free software
Elementary OS, an Ubuntu-based distribution with strong focus on the
visual experience without sacrificing performance.
Fedora, a community distribution sponsored by American company Red Hat
and the successor to the company's previous offering,
Red Hat Linux.
It aims to be a technology testbed for Red Hat's commercial Linux
offering, where new open source software is prototyped, developed, and
tested in a communal setting before maturing into
Red Hat Enterprise
Red Hat Enterprise
Linux (RHEL), a derivative of Fedora, maintained
and commercially supported by Red Hat. It seeks to provide tested,
secure, and stable
Linux server and workstation support to businesses.
CentOS, a distribution derived from the same sources used by Red Hat,
maintained by a dedicated volunteer community of developers with both
100% Red Hat-compatible versions and an upgraded version that is not
always 100% upstream compatible.
Oracle Linux, which is a derivative of
Red Hat Enterprise Linux,
maintained and commercially supported by Oracle
Scientific Linux, a distribution derived from the same sources used by
Red Hat, maintained by Fermilab
Mandriva Linux was a
Red Hat derivative popular in several European
countries and Brazil, backed by the French company of the same name.
After the company went bankrupt, it was superseded by OpenMandriva
Lx, although a number of derivatives now have a larger user
Mageia, a community fork of
Mandriva Linux created in 2010
PCLinuxOS, a derivative of Mandriva, which grew from a group of
packages into a community-spawned desktop distribution
ROSA Linux, another former derivative of Mandriva, now developed
openSUSE, a community distribution mainly sponsored by German company
Linux Enterprise, derived from openSUSE, maintained and
commercially supported by SUSE
Arch Linux, a rolling release distribution targeted at experienced
Linux users and maintained by a volunteer community, offers official
binary packages and a wide range of unofficial user-submitted source
packages. Packages are usually defined by a single
PKGBUILD text file.
Manjaro Linux, a derivative of
Arch Linux that includes a graphical
installer and other ease-of-use features for less experienced Linux
Rolling release packages from Arch repositories are held for
further testing to achieve increased stability, and packages
identified as addressing security issues of critical or high severity
are "fast-tracked" to the stable branch.
Gentoo, a distribution targeted at power users, known for its FreeBSD
Ports-like automated system for compiling applications from source
Chrome OS, Google's commercial operating system (using Gentoo and its
Portage) that primarily runs web applications
Chromium OS, the fully open-source version of Chrome OS
Slackware, created in 1993, one of the first
Linux distributions and
among the earliest still maintained, committed to remain highly
Unix-like and easily modifiable by end users[non-primary source
Main article: Lightweight
Other distributions target specific niches, such as:
Routers – for example, targeted by the tiny embedded router
Internet of things – for example, targeted by Ubuntu Core
Home theater PCs – for example, targeted by KnoppMyth, Kodi
(former XBMC) and Mythbuntu
Specific platforms – for example,
Raspbian targets the
Raspberry Pi platform
Education – examples are
Edubuntu and Karoshi, server systems
based on PCLinuxOS
Scientific computer servers and workstations – for example,
targeted by Scientific Linux
Digital audio workstations for music production – for example,
targeted by Ubuntu Studio
Computer Security, digital forensics and penetration testing –
Kali Linux and Parrot Security OS
Privacy and anonymity – for example, targeted by Tails
Offline use – for example, Endless OS
Android and non-
Emulator in Android
Whether Google's Android counts as a
Linux distribution is a matter of
definition. It uses the
Linux kernel, so the
Linux Foundation and
Chris DiBona, Google's open source chief, agree that Android is a
Linux distribution; others, such as Google engineer Patrick Brady,
disagree by noting the lack of support for many
GNU tools in Android,
GNU distributions include Cyanogenmod, its fork LineageOS,
Android-x86 and recently Tizen.
Free Standards Group is an organization formed by major software
and hardware vendors that aims to improve interoperability between
different distributions. Among their proposed standards are the Linux
Standard Base, which defines a common ABI and packaging system for
Linux, and the
Filesystem Hierarchy Standard which recommends a
standard filenaming chart, notably the basic directory names found on
the root of the tree of any
Linux filesystem. Those standards,
however, see limited use, even among the distributions developed by
members of the organization.
The diversity of
Linux distributions means that not all software runs
on all distributions, depending on what libraries and other system
attributes are required. Packaged software and software repositories
are usually specific to a particular distribution, though
cross-installation is sometimes possible on closely related
Tools for choosing a distribution
The process of constantly switching between distributions is often
referred to as "distro hopping". Virtual machines such as
VMware Workstation virtualize hardware allowing users
to test live media on a virtual machine. Some websites like
DistroWatch offer lists of popular distributions, and link to
screenshots of operating systems as a way to get a first impression of
There are tools available to help people select an appropriate
distribution, such as several versions of the
Chooser, and the universal package search tool whohas. There
are easy ways to try out several
Linux distributions before deciding
on one: Multi Distro is a
Live CD that contains nine space-saving
There are many ways to install a
Linux distribution. The most common
method of installing
Linux is by booting from an optical disc that
contains the installation program and installable software. Such a
disk can be burned from a downloaded ISO image, purchased alone for a
low price, provided as a cover disk with a magazine, shipped for free
by request, or obtained as part of a box set that may also include
manuals and additional commercial software.
Linux distributions were installed using sets of floppies but
this has been abandoned by all major distributions. Nowadays most
distributions offer CD and DVD sets with the vital packages on the
first disc and less important packages on later ones. They usually
also allow installation over a network after booting from either a set
of floppies or a CD with only a small amount of data on it.
New users tend to begin by partitioning a hard drive in order to keep
their previously installed operating system. The
can then be installed on its own separate partition without affecting
previously saved data.
Live CD setup, the computer boots the entire operating system
from CD without first installing it on the computer's hard disk. Some
distributions have a
Live CD installer, where the computer boots the
operating system from the disk, and then proceeds to install it onto
the computer's hard disk, providing a seamless transition from the OS
running from the CD to the OS running from the hard disk.
Both servers and personal computers that come with
installed are available from vendors including Hewlett-Packard, Dell
On embedded devices,
Linux is typically held in the device's firmware
and may or may not be consumer-accessible.
Anaconda, one of the more popular installers, is used by Red Hat
Enterprise Linux, Fedora (which uses the Fedora Media Writer) and
other distributions to simplify the installation process. Debian,
Ubuntu and many others use Debian-Installer.
Installation via an existing operating system
Some distributions let the user install
Linux on top of their current
system, such as
WinLinux or coLinux.
Linux is installed to the Windows
hard disk partition, and can be started from inside Windows itself
Virtual machines (such as
VirtualBox or VMware) also make it possible
Linux to be run inside another OS. The VM software simulates a
separate computer onto which the
Linux system is installed. After
installation, the virtual machine can be booted as if it were an
Various tools are also available to perform full dual-boot
installations from existing platforms without a CD, most notably:
The (now deprecated) Wubi installer, which allows Windows users to
download and install Ubuntu or its derivatives into a FAT32 or an NTFS
partition without an installation CD, allowing users to easily dual
boot between either operating system on the same hard drive without
losing data. Replaced by Ubiquity.
Win32-loader, which is in the process of being integrated in official
Debian CDs/DVDs, and allows Windows users to install
Debian without a
CD, though it performs a network installation and thereby requires
UNetbootin, which allows Windows and
Linux users to perform similar
no-CD network installations for a wide variety of
and additionally provides live USB creation support
See also: List of proprietary software for Linux
Some specific proprietary software products are not available in any
form for Linux. As of September 2015, the Steam gaming service has
1,500 games available on Linux, compared to 2,323 games for Mac and
6,500 Windows games. Emulation and API-translation
projects like Wine and
CrossOver make it possible to run
non-Linux-based software on
Linux systems, either by emulating a
proprietary operating system or by translating proprietary API calls
(e.g., calls to Microsoft's
DirectX APIs) into native Linux
API calls. A virtual machine can also be used to run a proprietary OS
(like Microsoft Windows) on top of Linux.
Computer hardware is usually sold with an operating system other than
Linux already installed by the original equipment manufacturer (OEM).
In the case of IBM PC compatibles the OS is usually Microsoft Windows;
in the case of
Apple Macintosh computers it has always been a version
of Apple's OS, currently macOS;
Sun Microsystems sold
with the Solaris installed; video game consoles such as the Xbox,
Wii each have their own proprietary OS. This limits
Linux's market share: consumers are unaware that an alternative
exists, they must make a conscious effort to use a different operating
system, and they must either perform the actual installation
themselves, or depend on support from a friend, relative, or computer
However, it is possible to buy hardware with
Linux already installed.
Lenovo, Hewlett-Packard, Dell, Affordy, and
System76 all sell
Linux laptops, and custom-order PC manufacturers
will also build
Linux systems (but possibly with the
Windows key on
Fixstars Solutions (formerly Terra Soft) sells
Macintosh computers and
PlayStation 3 consoles with Yellow Dog Linux
It is more common to find embedded devices sold with
Linux as the
default manufacturer-supported OS, including the Linksys
device, TiVo's line of personal video recorders, and Linux-based
cellphones (including Android smartphones), PDAs, and portable music
The end user license agreement (EULA) for Apple gives the consumer the
opportunity to reject the license and obtain a refund. The current
Microsoft Windows license lets the manufacturer determine the refund
policy. With previous versions of Windows, it was possible to
obtain a refund if the manufacturer failed to provide the refund by
litigation in the small claims courts. On 15 February 1999, a
Linux users in
Orange County, California
Orange County, California held a "Windows
Refund Day" protest in an attempt to pressure Microsoft into issuing
them refunds. In France, the Linuxfrench and AFUL (French speaking
Libre Software Users' Association) organizations along with free
Roberto Di Cosmo
Roberto Di Cosmo started a "Windows Detax"
movement, which led to a 2006 petition against "racketiciels"
(translation: Racketware) with 39,415 signatories and the DGCCRF
branch of the French government filing several complaints against
bundled software. On March 24, 2014, a new international petition was
launched by AFUL on the Avaaz platform, translated into several
languages and supported by many organizations around the world.
Open-source software portal
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^ "(en) Computers in the post-Snowden era: choose before
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